Williams’ “Field of Action” is the progenitor of Olson’s “Composition by Field.” Similarities can be found in both poets assertion that the elements of the poem are material and the need for a new structure, a new measure. The foundation of Williams’ new structure and measure is based on the variable foot, a “relative” foot reflecting American idiom, its intonations and rhythms as sensed by the ear. Olson’s new structure is based on the syllable as a unit of meaning, as the base unit of perception as sensed by the ear and processed by the mind. However, Olson’s measure is based on the new line, which is composed by the breath, by the innate, generative rhythm of man as a natural object.
Ultimately, Williams’ “Field of Action” functions like a machine. “A poem is a machine made out of words.” The movement within the field of action drives the poem forward physically like the workings of an engine drives a car forward. Olson’s “Composition by Field” also privileges the kinetic, the driving forward motion of the poem. However, Olson’s motion is fueled by perception leading to perception, not the synchronic physical movement of the poem. Perception to perception captured by the ear and processed by the mind into the syllable. The machine has a role in Olson’s composition by field, too, but his machine is not the product of materiality; instead, it is the tool of materiality. They typewriter, it’s standardized spaces and fonts, provides a unit of measure on which to compose by breath, on which to plot the material elements of the poem. The typewriter produces the poet’s version of the musician’s stave, a universal standard through which all readers and voices can experience the line as breath. This is an improvement over Williams’ variable foot in that Williams’ measure will always be subject to the reader (which is something I believe he would like to avoid) and variable takes on idiom. Olson’s measure, based on the typewriter, approaches the new formality he was hoping to achieve.
“the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE
the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE”
Expanding on Olson’s notions of the syllable and the line, it could be said that the syllable is produced through the cognitive processing of a sensed (heard) external stimulation (i.e. perception) and the line is produced through the internal generation of the breath. The idea that the poem is driven along by perception leading to perception is very similar to Hugo’s theory of association, i.e. the idea that knowledge is built through a layering of associations. Similarly, the poem is built on a layering of aural perceptions that the ear ceaselessly collects and that the mind transforms into syllables that it then plays with. The line, the rhythm of the breath, maintains and sustains the driving development of perception (now translated into syllables). These syllables and lines become material objects that then hold the tension in the poem. I imagine a thread connecting syllable to syllable, line to line, held taut by the energy of each poem object.
Then he, if he Chooses to Speak from these Roots, Works in that Area
where Nature has Given him Size, Projective Size
Size factors into Olson’s field. Successful projective poetics achieve a “natural” dimension where nothing suffers diminution. Projective poetics have the potential to “carry much larger material than it has carried in our language since the Elizabethans.” Olson is talking about the epic, and he hearkens back to classical works and writers such as Homer and Seami. How to reconcile this goal of the epic with the call for a new form, a new measure, and a new way of writing? Olson’s resulting “stance toward reality” (in other words, his poetics) speaks of “objectism” in response to Williams’ and Pound’s “objectivism.” Objectivism, while effacing the subject position, still maintains a hierarchy of poet/man and object. Objectism insists on the poet/man as an object in nature along with all other objects. Man is not the “larger force”; he is a “participant in the larger force. His goal, then, is not to demonstrate the hierarchy of man over other objects but to project “dimensions larger than man.” Projectivist writing returns to the goal of celebrating the larger force in which man participates instead of focusing on the force/source of man who sees and creates all things. This does not negate new forms, structures or measures with which to approach the epic. On the contrary, it is only through the new writing that poets can once again approach the epic.
Technique on One Hand, Content on the Other
O’Hara’s Personism is anti-poetics. It is anti-theory, anti-cultural studies, anti-craft. Personism takes the poet out of the theoretical and into the seat, physically, where he writes the poem. Personism then takes the poem and puts it in front of the reader and, as such, becomes a conduit between the poet and the reader. Personism takes the focus off the poem as an object to be studied, dissected, deconstructed, analyzed and critiqued. Instead, it puts the focus on the poet as a writer, the reader as a reader, and the poem as a mutual experience. The poem connects people. Too much poetics, O’Hara seems to be saying, severs the poem from humanity. It doesn’t matter what the reader gets out of a poem – if he gets the “correct” messages, if he understands teh context, if it changes him, if he has an epiphany, if he gets anything all. What is important is that the reader experiences the poem, and in that way is connected to another person, and humanity is sustained instead of the study of humanities.
This is why O’Hara argues against abstraction; it “involves the personal removal by the poet.” To remove the personal is to remove the person and that leaves only a vacuum – Keats’ negative capability. Negative capability has to be filled; the void must be filled. And so readers put their energy into filling the void. They empty themselves out into the void. And their experience of the poem becomes filling the poem itself with their selves. Instead, they should experience the poem as a connection of their self to the poet’s self.
The Poem Squarely Between the Poet and the Person
Are Frank O’Hara and Jack Spicer writing a queer poetics in the former’s concept of “personism” and the latter’s concept of dictated poetry? I think so. The poet Amy King, in her essay “The What Else of Queer Poetry” states, “A queer poetics is not only about what is but is equally about what is not. We live in relation to each other, regardless of our best efforts to divorce and secede.” Heteronormativity is all about separating and dividing the genders. It is about difference. It is about maintaining a social-sexual separation in order to achieve a physical connection. Heteronormative connection is based on the binary, the opposite – not only the “you are not me and I am not you,” but also the “you are the complete and utter opposite of me.” O’Hara and Spicer negate heteronormative connection.
For O’Hara, the connection remains a physical connection of one with the other – remains within the realm of the embodied person – but the source of that connection isn’t binary social-sexual physicality. It is written communication. Every person can connect with every other person; all they need is a poem between them.
Spicer effaces the barrier between the poet and the other through his theory of dictated poetry. There is the poet, and there is the Outside, but what is Outside becomes the inside of the poet, travels through the poet. The poet is the “host,” but to what? To everything. To every external thing, idea, concept, spirit and spook floating in the ether. The connection isn’t one with the other; rather it is one with everything, and everything invades the one. This “union” isn’t heteronormative, but the idea of “taking in” and letting it pass through you unchanged, a merger that doesn’t change the component parts but results in the birth of one of the component parts through the other is sexual.
Everybody as a Host to this Parasite
Spicer’s concept of poetic dictation posits externality as the source of poetry, which is very different from what someone like John Stuart Mill or Shelley or Keats or Mallarme or Kristeva or HD posits as the source of poetry. For Mill, the source of poetry is the poet’s sensibility and spirit. For Shelley, the poet’s work is his attempt to capture and interpret the eternal rhythms, which are external, but the poet does the creative work himself. Same for Keats. Keats posits the poet as a cypher, a chameleon without identity taking in and on all the external stimuli around him. Yet Keats differs from Spicer in that the chameleon poet is affected, and that affective act, that change in the poet, is the source of poetry. Spicer’s poet isn’t changed. He is the medium through which the external poem, the poem that exists itself as a thing out in the ether, travels. Mallarme finds poetry in the play of the word: the music and sound of the word where there exists no exact meaning. Poetry is found in speech. Yet for Mallarme, the poet’s craft is on understanding this and utilizing it. The poet knows where poetry can be found and gets to work digging it up, searching it out, collecting it and rearranging it on paper. The poet maintains his creative agency. Spicer’s poet has agency, too. Spicer’s poet is an agency of transportation, however, not creation. Kristeva’s chora still privileges the subject position (for Spicer, there is no subject, or if there is, it’s an understanding of the “interference” of subjectivity and the work of the poet is to “block” that interference). HD’d jellyfish, or the over-conscious, is also external, but it represents the union of the spirit/soul of the poet and the universal spirit/soul of the external community. Consequently, it is partially internally generated. Spicer’s poems are internally generated, they are internally translated and possibly regulated. The poet is the servant to the master poem.